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Letters from Adolf Hitler's father give rare glimpse into dictator's upbringing

23.02.2021

Like father, like son — Adolf Hitler's father was also self-taught, smug and greatly overestimated himself, writes veteran Austrian historian Roman Sandgruber in a new book.

Previously unknown letters written by Adolf Hitler's father, Alois Hitler, shed light on the family origins of the Nazi dictator, reveals a new book that was published on Monday.

In his German-language book "Hitler's Father: How the Son Became a Dictator," Austrian historian Roman Sandgruber argues the elder Hitler played a large role in shaping the psychology of his son.

Alois Hitler, who died in 1902, was an Austrian customs officer whose job required moving house and family 18 times.

The book draws on 31 letters father Alois Hitler wrote to master road builder Josef Radlegger after buying his farm at Hafeld in Upper Austria.

Although Alois Hitler had no practical farming experience, he "always wanted to be a learned gentleman farmer who was better than others," writes Sandgruber.

He describes Alois Hitler as a mix of being self-taught, smug and someone who grossly overestimated himself.

Mirroring his father's handwriting

Sandgruber's work cites previously unpublished correspondence handed to the historian by the road builder's great-granddaughter five years ago.

Like his father's handwriting, Adolf Hitler's script was also in the Kurrentschrift (running hand) style, with many sharp angles and changes of direction, noted Sandgruber after studying the ageing bundle of letters.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Degenerate art

Modern artworks whose style, artist or subject did not meet with the approval of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists were labeled "degenerate art." From 1937, the Nazis confiscated such works from German museums. In a traveling exhibition, "degenerate art" was held up for public ridicule. Here we see Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler at the original exhibition in Munich.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Hitler's art

Hitler had an affinity for Romanticism and 19th century painting and preferred peaceful country scenes. His private collection included works by Cranach, Tintoretto and Bordone. Like his role models Ludwig I. of Bavaria and Frederick the Great, Hitler wanted to manage his own art exhibition at retirement, to be shown in the city of Linz on the River Danube in the "Führer Museum."

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
The confiscations

The National Socialists were not the first to persecute avant-garde artists, but they took it a step further by banning their works from museums. In 1937, the authorities had over 20,000 art works removed from 101 state-owned German museums. Anything that the Nazis didn't consider edifying to the German people was carted off.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Hitler's national style

Abstract art had no place in Hitler's "national style," as grew clear when the "Great German Art Exhibition" put traditional landscape, historical and nude paintings by artists including Fritz Erler, Hermann Gradl and Franz Xaver Stahl on display in Munich on July 18, 1937. The closer the depicted subject to the actual model was, the more beautiful it was in the eyes of the Führer.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
What was considered degenerate

Even those in Hitler's inner circle were highly unsure which artists he approved of. The 1937 "Great German Art Exhibition" and the simultaneous "Degerate Art" exhibition in Munich's Court Garden Arcades brought some clarity. Unwelcome were creative artists of the modern period including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Degenerate art on tour

In the "Degerate Art" exhibition, 650 confiscated artworks from 32 German museums were on display, the exhibits equated with sketches by mentally handicapped persons and shown together with photos of crippled persons. The intention: to provoke revulsion and aversion among visitors. Over two million visitors saw the exhibition on its tour of various cities.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Legal foundation

The "Degenerate Artworks Confiscation Law" of May 31, 1938 retroactively legalized their unremunerated acquisition by the state. The law remained valid in the postwar years, the allies determining that it had simply been a redistribution of state property. Unlike stolen artworks, pieces that the Nazis labled "degenerate" and had removed from museums can be freely traded today.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
The "degenerate art" trade

The confiscated art was taken to storage facilities in Berlin and at Schönhausen Palace. Many works were sold by Hitler's four art merchants: Bernhard A. Böhmer, Karl Buchholz, Hildebrand Gurlitt and Ferdinand Möller. On March 20, 1939 the Berlin fire department burned approximately 5,000 unsold artifacts, calling it an "exercise."

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Art hub Switzerland

125 works were earmarked for an auction in Switzerland. A commission charged by Hermann Göring and others with liquefying the "degenerate" art products estimated the minimum bidding prices and commissioned the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne to carry out the auction. Taking place on June 30, 1939, it met with eager interest worldwide.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art
Much "degenerate art" in the Gurlitt collection

Over 21,000 works of "degenerate art" were confiscated. Estimates on the number subsequently sold differ; sources estimate 6,000 to 10,000. Others were destroyed or disappeared. Hundreds of artworks believed lost turned up in Cornelius Gurlitt's collection — and reignited the discussion.

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Anti-Semite Adolf Hitler — born in Austria's Braunau am Inn in 1889 to Alois and his third, much-younger wife, Klara Pötzl — likely later sought to conceal that the family once lived in a Jewish-owned property in Urfahr near the Danube river city of Linz, the book reveals.

The letters also show that Hitler's mother, nearing death in 1907, was treated by a Jewish doctor who later escaped to America.

Anti-Semite from youth

Hitler was already an anti-Semite in his youth, concludes Sandgruber, disputing claims that Hitler's hatred of Jews was forged after he moved to Vienna.

As a young man, Hitler moved to the city around 1908, aiming to become an artist, despite being turned down for study.

The latest findings are contrary to portrayals by Hitler's teenage friend, August Kubizek, who is often cited by other historians, maintains Sandgruber.

As the leader of the Nazi party, Hitler emerged as German chancellor in 1933, unleashed World War II and instigated the mass murder of Jews and other persecuted groups.

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World War II and the Nazi era: How Germany deals with its past

Shared 'contempt' for authority

Adolf Hitler's only significant revolt against his father, notes Sandgruber, was to reject Alois' wish that he also pursue a civil service career.

"He wanted to be a free artist and not to follow in his father's footsteps," writes Sandgruber.

However, both father and son also shared "contempt" for authority and were anticlerical, although Hitler did not quit the Roman Catholic church, the historian added.

Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, who reviewed the book for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, noted that Hitler, "who attached so much importance to an ancestral passport and Aryan origin, had himself more than one gap in the family tree."

Enough for a new film?

On Alois Hitler there had been "almost no sources," writes Föderl-Schmid in her review of the book.

There are a "large number of books and films about [Adolf] Hitler's chauffeur, personal physician, press chief, photographer, [and] secretary" but not his father.

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Aesthetics for the masses

At the 1938 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, thousands of members of the League of German Girls (BDM) stood in an impressive formation. Uniform, obedient, functioning: The message was clear. It was a political demonstration staged by Adolf Hitler's command staff.

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Fit for the Führer

Director Leni Riefenstahl documented the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as an epic "Festival of Peoples" and "Festival of Beauty." More than 40 cameramen were in action. Riefenstahl's films were designed to be an ode to the body, a celebration of the Nazis' ideal of beauty. Hitler was enthusiastic fan of his "favorite director."

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Olympic Games opening ceremony 1936

In the above scene from the Olympics film, Riefenstahl captures the lighting of the Olympic flame while thousands of people stretch their arms in salutation to their leader. Using the masses as ornamentation is undoubtedly what makes the opening ceremony so impressive.

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Manifest power

Leni Riefenstahl called her propaganda film about the Nazi party's sixth rally in Nuremberg in 1934 "Triumph of the Will." Today, it is regarded as one of the director's most influential works. The German Wehrmacht is strong, devoted and determined; that was the political message.

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Megalomania cast in stone

Built in stone, Nazi architecture stood for their claim to power. Gigantic, with a hint of megalomania: That was the blueprint for the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. Impressive mass marches took place here, setting the visual stage for the spread of Nazi ideology.

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Bric-a-brac from Dachau

This, too, was Nazi-style design: a porcelain German Shepherd dog, manufactured by Munich-Allach. The company was a purveyor to the SS and their unscrupulous boss, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler presented such figurines to his comrades at "Das Schawrze Korps" (The Black Corps), the SS official newspaper. They were produced by prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp.

Propaganda of dark forces: 'Design of the Third Reich'
Minute design even at the camps

The Nazis also designed symbols of identification to be worn by concentration camp prisoners, a uniform aesthetic for their extermination process. Examples are on display at the exhibition "Design of the Third Reich," on show at the Design Museum Den Bosch in the Netherlands until January 19, 2020.

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The material in Sandgruber's book could be enough, she argues, for a potential new film on Hitler's family origins.

Hitler-era text passages still linger

Even over 75 years after World War II, modern-day Germany still needs to rid itself of 29 legal or regulatory texts that allude to wording introduced when Hitler was in power, government-appointed anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein told news agency AFP last month.

Government critics, for example, are calling for the removal of the term "race" from Article 3 of Germany's constitution. Last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared herself open to such a deletion.

ipj/rs (dpa, AFP)